UBC leadership violated academic freedom, report concludes

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Sauder School of Business

A fact-finding mission has found that University of British Columbia leadership violated academic freedom when board chair John Montalbano intervened after a professor published a blog post speculating on why former President Arvind Gupta may have resigned. In response, Montalbano has permanently resigned from the Board.

Montalbano was on the defensive after Professor Jennifer Berdahl claimed that several Sauder School of Business senior deans and Montalbano verbally disciplined and threatened her after reading what she calls her “personal observations” of President Gupta as a leader. According to Berdahl, she was told told her that her article harmed the reputation of the university, raised questions about her credibility and jeopardized her position funding from the Royal Bank of Canad

Following a subsequent article by Berdahl in which she relayed how Montalbano treated her following her first post, the UBC Faculty Association called for his resignation.

The report was investigated and published by former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith. While under investigation, John Montalbano temporarily stepped down. At the time, he denied any allegations of wrongdoing, although he admitted that he did contact Berdahl about the post to hear her concerns.

But the Faculty Association also claimed Montalbano and the senior leadership had breached a number of university policies, as well as academic freedom, including: UBC Statement on Respectful Environment for Students, Faculty and Staff; Policy 2: Employment Equity; Policy 3: Discrimination and Harassment; Policy 114: Fundraising and Acceptance of Donations and related Policy 47: Chair, Professorship and Distinguished Scholar Honorifics; and Policy 97: Conflict of interest and Conflict of Commitment.

Honorable Lynn Smith concluded that “UBC failed in its obligation to protect and support Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom”, as stated in the report, published Thursday morning. But she also noted that neither Montalbano nor any individual from the Sauder School of Business breached any of the university policies outlined above.

“The blog post was clearly an exercise of her right as a faculty member to disseminate her knowledge and research, including through commentary on current events in a blog,” added Smith.

“I concluded that no individual intended to interfere with Dr. Berdahl’s academic freedom, or made a direct attempt to do so,” says Smith. “However, sometimes several relatively small mistakes can lead to a failure of the larger system. The systemic failure in this case resulted from a cascading series of events in which there were some errors of judgment by Mr. Montalbano and some individuals at the Sauder School, and some unlucky circumstances. As a result, the institution failed Dr. Berdahl and missed an important opportunity to vindicate the principle of academic freedom.”

The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) responded to the report and called for the university to apologize formally to Berdahl.

“The report points to a serious failure on the part of the senior leadership of UBC in violating the academic freedom of Professor Berdahl, and subsequently failing to speak out in defence of her rights,” says CAUT executive director David Robinson. “The leadership must be held to account for this, and Professor Berdahl is owed an apology.”

Robison adds that academic freedom is the central value of all universities and that the academic community has an obligation to defend it.

“Today’s report makes it clear that the Chair of the Board must bear particular responsibility for setting in motion the series of events in this case. His ability to continue in his role has been seriously compromised.”

In a release also issued Thursday morning, UBC announced John Montalbano would step down immediately from the UBC Board of Governors as both the Chair and a member.

“The Board of Governors collectively expresses their gratitude for Mr. Montalbano’s service to UBC and his support for the Sauder School of Business, and are unanimous in thanking him for his many contributions and strong leadership,” says Douglas Mitchell, QC, Chair of the Governance Committee.

UBC also states that they accept the fact-finding mission’s conclusion and will take a number of steps to improve their promise to academic freedom, including:

  • Hire a specialist who will proactively work with faculty, staff, and governors to ensure that academic freedom is safeguarded and preserved at UBC. This person will provide advice, education, and counsel regarding all issues involving academic freedom, including the obligation of all members of the university to protect and support this central freedom.
  • Create an education program that would be aimed at all new faculty members, heads, directors, administrators and deans, regarding how to fulfill their obligation to protect academic freedom.
  • Develop an online tool to allow people to access information on what academic freedom is, how to manage academic freedom issues, and answers to frequently asked questions.
  • Develop a more formalized module on academic freedom as part of the orientation/on-boarding process for all new governors and senators.

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